Sun Microsystems, Intel, Microsoft and others have fought most of the year for an increase, after this year's allotment of visas ran out in March. The total number of visas was scheduled to decline over the next several years, potentially wreaking havoc on an industry strapped to find enough skilled workers.
The bill lifts the visa limit to 195,000 annually for the next three years, up from 115,000 this year. The bill also includes a number of initiatives to help train children and young adults in technology as a means of lessening the need for such visas in the future.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, spoke after the bill's passage at a news conference on the Capitol lawn. He predicted a quick House passage and approval by the White House. He dismissed the fact that President Clinton and his chief of staff, John Podesta, have hinted at a veto of the bill if it didn't include immigration relief for Latino illegal aliens.
"With a 96-to-1 vote, I think he's going to sign the bill," Hatch said of the legislation he sponsored.
Hatch noted that the House would have to vote on his bill rather than moving its own, given that Congress is scheduled to adjourn for the year as early as Friday. House sources have suggested that a vote on Hatch's bill could occur any day now.
"We're counting on our colleagues in the House," Hatch said.
The so-called H-1B visas are critical to the high-tech industry because of a shortage of trained workers in the United States, companies say. Some company executives were predicting that visas for 2001 would be used up as soon as January without an increase.
The Senate declined to address a related issue, namely the desire of many immigrants on H-1B visas to remain in the United States after their three-year permit expires. In a series of debates leading up to the Senate vote, some members expressed reservations about putting high-tech workers at the front of the immigration line based solely on the fact that they are better educated.
The Democratic leadership in the Senate fought during the last two weeks to attach language on Latino amnesty. Enough Democrats defected, however, that Republicans were able to block any such amendments.
Once faced with an up-and-down vote on H-1B visas alone, only one Democrat--Ernest Hollings of South Carolina--voted against the legislation, without citing why.
At the news conference, Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, called the 96-1 vote "misleading," referring to the number of "roadblocks" that had to be overcome to have the final vote on the bill. Bennett said he told a group in Silicon Valley two weeks ago that he didn't think the Senate would be able to pass it.
The bill's passage was praised in the high-tech community by such organizations as the Information Technology Association of America, the Telecommunications Industry Association and the Electronic Industries Alliance.